Posted by: Kathy Temean | January 2, 2015

Free Fall Friday – Why Does Your Story Happen?

I will announce the guest critique for January next Friday, but you can start sending in your first pages now. See bottom of post for submission guidelines.

erikaphoto-45Erika Wassall, the Jersey Farm Scribe here with an important question for you today:

Why Does Your Story Happen?

No matter what I’m writing, from a picture book, to a young adult novel, or even a flash fiction piece, I have learned that all stories will present themselves better, be stronger and more meaningful if the reader has an idea of WHY they are happening.

This has taken me some time to learn. I like to start out knee-deep IN the action. One problem I’ve never had was a slow beginning. I like books that throw me right in there, even if I’m fumbling to understand what’s going on at first, so that’s how I almost always write.

High energy. Instant engagement.

Great, right?

Sure, sure, it has positives. But I had to learn to take a step back. And it has to be fast. Within a few paragraphs, or a page, the reader has to be let into the details of the world, what’s going on, and WHY.

At first, instant action is exciting. The reader gets the immediate thrill (hopefully) of really feeling the movement of the story. But that will quickly wear off, and leave them with a sour taste of “okay… what the heck is actually going on here??”

The reader needs to be in on the secrets.

Not every secret right away of course. But they quickly need to feel a sense of inclusiveness and grasp of the reality they dove into.

And it has to be more than an explanation of what monster they’re running from, or that Haylie is worried about them being lost because she’s out WAY past her curfew already.

I need to introduce a catalyst. WHY did they come to this place where the monster’s roam? If Haylie is so worried about her curfew, why did she choose TONIGHT to break the rules?

It’s something I struggle with. Feeling out how much information I need to put out there.

A trick that helps me is to look at it like a playground. Clichés of kids huddle together, whispering about whatever mischief or drama is the flavor of the moment. The reader needs to feel like one of the gang, like they understand the inside jokes and are “in” on everything going on.

This can be especially difficult in picture books. Every word is precious in a PB, and it can seem like a waste to be using them up to explain how the main character got to that point or why. But it can take less than you’d think, and really adds a depth of buy-in from the reader.

Understanding WHY a story is happening can ground it more in its own reality, giving it a sense of linear tangibility, as well as natural character development. Cause and effect are a part of every world and handled differently by every individual.

Billy darts into the kitchen, begging mom for a few toy.

Why then? Perhaps Billy just came from his friend’s house and learned they were getting one and is now jealous. This could need little more than the comment that Tommy’s mom said HE was getting one.

Or maybe Billy just saw the TV advertisement. A plate of crackers in front of the TV with a spilled glass of juice and the TV still blaring in the background could paint the picture without even using a single word.

No matter how it’s done, it can make the reader feel more like an insider on the story itself, and at the same time, gives insight on what type of person Billy is, what motivates him, what set off his longing.

So take a moment, step back and make sure that you’re letting your readers in on the secrets, giving them the insight into this new world that makes them know they’ve unlocked something special. Because there’s no doubt in my mind…

… your manuscripts are worth it.


Erika Wassall is a writer, a farmer and a liver of life. She is a member of SCBWI and a proud Mad Scientist, bringing science experiments right into children’s classrooms, and hearts. She has a small farm in New Jersey with sheep, chickens, pigs and vegetables. Check out her new website at where as a first generation farmer, she often takes the long way, learning the tricks of the trade on The Farm. On her website is also The Shop page with tips and a free Q/A from her husband’s mechanic shop, and The Writer page where she shares stories, experiences and characters from the heart. Follow her on Twitter at @NJFarmScribe. She’d love to hear from you!

Thank you Erika for kicking off the new year with this new article.

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES for January’s First Page Critiques:

In the subject line, please write “January 2015 First Page Critique” and paste the text in the email. Please make sure you include your name, the title of the piece, and whether it is as picture book, middle grade, or young adult, etc. at the top.

Plus attach your first page Word doc. to email. Format using one inch margins and 12 point New Times Roman font – double space – no more than 23 lines – only one page. Send to: kathy(dot)temean(at)gmail(dot)com.

PLEASE FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES: Last month a number of submissions were taken out of the mix, due to not following the directions for both the pasted email and the attached Word doc.

DEADLINE: January 22nd.

RESULTS: January 30th.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I really appreciate this post. I often read the first-page critiques, and I can see how it is difficult to start with a bang and still give some insight into what’s going on and why. Thanks, Erika, for these tips, and thanks to those who submit first pages so others can learn from them as well!


    • Hally,

      Thanks for the comment. Hope you will still visit in 2015.



  2. Another stellar article, Erika—beginnings at the beginning of the year 😀 This is a fantastic point to keep in mind…somehow the reader has to know the who, what, where AND why of things early on 🙂


  3. Thanks to both of you! And I love how Kathy set it up to line up with the first page critique information. To be honest, until Hally mentioned it, I hadn’t really thought of that relation specifically!

    Love it!


  4. This is encouraging and thought provoking. I need to go back and read my manuscripts with this advice in mind.


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